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Compositionality in Davidson’s Early Work


  • Peter Pagin Stockholm University



Davidson’s 1965 paper, “Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages”, has (at least almost) invariably been interpreted, by others and by myself, as arguing that natural languages must have a compositional semantics, or at least a systematic semantics, that can be finitely specified. However, in his reply to me in the Żegleń volume, Davidson denies that compositionality is in any need of an argument. How does this add up?

In this paper I consider Davidson’s first three meaning theoretic papers from this perspective. I conclude that Davidson was right in his reply to me that he never took compositionality, or systematic semantics, to be in need of justification. What Davidson had been concerned with, clearly in the 1965 paper and in “Truth and Meaning” from 1967, and to some extent in his Carnap critique from 1963, is (i) that we need a general theory of natural language meaning, (ii) that such a theory should not be in conflict with the learnability of a language, and (iii) that such a theory bring out should how knowledge of a finite number of features of a language suffices for the understanding of all the sentences of that language.


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